x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Trust the Italians to develop a rice that absorbs more sauce than ever

Carnaroli is a highly absorbent variety grown in northern Italy - and one that makes a very superior risotto.

Courgette risotto garnished with parsley and squash blossom.
Courgette risotto garnished with parsley and squash blossom.

"Allora," Giulio Brignola begins again, wanting to make sure I understand. "At the moment you burn your finger on the rice, that's when you add the liquid." The two gentlemen standing next to us nod solemnly. Brignola, the head chef for Carluccio's in Dubai Mall, and I are in the booth of Riseria Cremonesi at Gulfoods (the food exhibition held in Dubai) talking to rice guys. No matter that most of their tips on how to make the perfect risotto are in Italian. Brignola, who makes the best risotto in town, is happy to translate: "You need to keep the rice at a soft boil. Blub, blub, blub." He imitates the sounds of proper bubbling.

You also need to start at the beginning of the Italian rice story. Here rice categories are based on shape and length: the smallest, roundest grain is called common rice and is used for minestrone; these are followed by semifino and fino, each a little longer and more refined. And then comes superfino. "It's the biggest and the finest," beams Brignola - and tailor-made for that creamiest, dreamiest of Italian dishes, risotto.

"So you use arborio for risotto, right?" I ask Paolo Cremonesi, whose father, Egidio, founded the Verona-based company in 1951. He shrugs and waves his hands. It is more complicated than that. Superfino comes in four varieties: arborio, baldo, vialone nano and carnaroli. All are well-suited for risotto. But one, they agree, is the super-finest. Carnaroli is a relatively new short-grain rice that was hybridised in the 1950s. It grows nearly twice as tall as other rice varieties, making it more difficult and expensive to harvest. Carnaroli is cultivated between the river Po and the Alps in northern Italy, in an area that was swamp before Mussolini cleaned it out in the 1930s.

One of the good things about carnaroli is its absorbency. Swelling to three times its dry size, this superfino rice is able to take in a staggering amount of liquid. The result is an extremely creamy risotto, one of the reasons that chefs like Brignola love to work with it. "The starch coming out of the rice is what makes for the creamy sauce," he explains. "With Indian food, you have a mound of rice to which you add sauce. With risotto the rice becomes part of the other ingredients. It's a harmony thing."


Splurge on a bag of carnaroli for this. (Waitrose brand found at Spinneys; Riso Gallo brand at LuLu). The dish - served at Carluccio's - calls for 180 grams of Gorgonzola. I found half that lent just enough flavour. Your choice. Serves 4-6. Heat the vegetable stock in a large pot to boiling; cover and keep simmering over low heat. In a large pot, heat the olive oil, then add the chopped onion and, over medium heat, sauté until translucent. Add the carnaroli rice and sauté until the rice is hot enough to burn your finger when picked up. Add the alcohol-free wine and continue to cook and stir until the wine evaporates, about 2 minutes. Add enough of the simmering broth to cover the rice. When the stock begins to reduce and become absorbed by the rice, add more and continue stirring frequently over medium heat. The liquid with the rice must be simmering at all times. As the stock continues to reduce, keep adding it to the cooking rice.

While the rice is cooking - it will take between 14 and 18 minutes to absorb the stock - grate the courgette, melt the butter in a large frying pan and sauté the courgette for several minutes. When the courgette softens, add it to the almost-cooked rice and cook them together for 2 minutes. Remove the rice mixture from the heat, break up the Gorgonzola with a spoon and add it and the Parmigiano reggiano to the rice, stirring for another 2 minutes. (The rice will continue to cook even off the heat for up to 8 minutes.)

To make sure the rice is cooked properly, pick up one or two grains: a small line across the middle indicates it is done. Add salt and pepper. As Brignola says, "Buon appetito!"